UPDATE 3-Georgian court rejects appeal to release ex-leader Saakashvili on health grounds
Ex-leader serving controversial six-year sentence
Has lost 40% of weight since being imprisoned
Authorities say Saakashvili is feigning seriousness of condition
(Adds details from court, comments)
By Jake Cordell
TBILISI, Feb 6 (Reuters) - A Georgian court on Monday rejected an appeal to release former President Mikheil Saakashvili from prison on health grounds, a decision the ex-leader said was akin to a "death sentence."
Saakashvili, who led the former Soviet republic as a pro-Western reformer from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge he and his supporters say was politically motivated.
In a statement shared by Saakashvili's team, the ex-leader said the court hearing was a "joke," stage managed by his political opponents to deny him adequate healthcare.
"The government's experts did not even bother to see me once, but the court believed them, and not the international team that included a Nobel Prize winner, that said if I stay in prison I will die," he said. "Now I've basically got a death sentence."
Saakashvili has staged multiple hunger strikes while in prison and alleges he has been poisoned. His health has drastically deteriorated and he has lost over 40% of his body weight since October 2021, according to health records shared by his political ally and family spokesman Giorgi Chaladze.
Georgian officials say the ex-president is simulating the seriousness of his condition in order to gain early release and that they have provided adequate healthcare in a clinic in Tbilisi where he has been held for months.
He was originally tried and sentenced in absentia for abuse of power on cases related to presidential pardons issued while he was in office and for allegedly ordering the beating of a political opponent. He has denied the charges and says the cases are politically motivated.
During the hearing that concluded on Monday, Saakashvili's team were seeking permission for him to be released or allowed to be transferred abroad for medical treatment.
A small bunch of supporters gathered at the court in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Monday, chanting Saakashvili's name in protest of the ruling.
Saakashvili lawyer Shalva Khachapuridze said his team plans to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, while another member of Saakashvili's team told Reuters it was planning a new campaign to exert "diplomatic" pressure on the Georgian government over his fate.
The United States and European Union have both publicly highlighted the plight of Saakashvili during the two-month court hearing, saying the Georgian authorities were responsible for the former leader's health.
Saakashvili, 55, swept to power at the start of 2004 after Georgia's pro-democracy Rose Revolution ousted the previous president in late 2003. He ushered in sweeping anti-corruption reforms in a bid to haul the country out of its ex-Soviet legacy, but his outspoken nature frequently upset his opponents.
Under his leadership Georgia fought a short war with Russia over the status of pro-Moscow breakaway republics in 2008 and he eventually appeared to lose popular support for his reform program. He stood down for election in 2013 - according to Georgia's two-term limit - in a vote that saw his political rivals in the Georgian Dream party emerge victorious.
Before returning to Georgia in 2021, Saakashvili worked in Ukraine as an advisor to various administrations, including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's, and as governor of the Odesa region. (Reporting by Jake Cordell in Tbilisi; Additional reporting by David Chkhikvishvili in Tbilisi; Editing by Mark Trevelyan, Hugh Lawson and Mark Porter)